"Dreaming does not preclude thinking", says Mariame Clément in an interview about her production of Massenet's Cendrillon for the Paris Opera. One would like to be just as sure that the reverse is true, and that thinking does not prevent us from dreaming, but this is not entirely guaranteed, even if this new production has many real qualities. Even before tackling the staging in question, one should also question the relevance of programming this work at the Bastille, when it would be so much better served in a smaller setting (the brilliant revival given at the Opéra Comique in 2011 proved this): Massenet's score seems drowned out in this large vessel, where all the finesse of the orchestration is lost, and where the singers, on this immense stage, can hardly adopt the tone of a musical conversation. Despite all its beauties, this Cendrillon seems a bit flimsy here, and the audience less familiar with this score (before the curtain rises, some spectators have obviously just discovered its existence, and some even wonder in what language it will be sung!) will perhaps be surprised by the international success it has enjoyed for several decades. Let us point out in passing that Carlo Rizzi's direction is probably not of a nature to really enhance it either : admittedly, the second act ballet is performed in its entirety, but it is rushed and without the slightest imagination, even though it is one of Massenet's most successful choreographic scores. Moreover, the pastiche dimension – what Gérard Condé calls "retrospective music" – takes a back seat, as the production avoids any allusion to a past prior to the 19th century.
Like Benjamin Lazar in 2011, Mariame Clément includes a reference to the cinema of Méliès, but in a much more fleeting way, and one is rather reminded of Modern Times by the enormous machine that occupies all the space in the 'princess factory' where Cinderella lives. Following the principle illustrated in Tintin in America, where we see an ox enter the Chicago slaughterhouse at one end of the line to emerge as corned beef at the other, whoever enters the machine emerges metamorphosed into a princess, or at least into the stereotype of a princess as shaped by three quarters of a century of Disney and other cartoons. Curiously, the heroine undergoes the same transformation, which is slightly anachronistic, since her candy-pink crinoline takes us back fifty years from the Belle Epoque, where the action is initially situated, to a fantasised mid-Victorian age (an impression confirmed by the palace in the shape of a tropical greenhouse). This is Mariame Clément's way of denouncing the tyranny of "Barbie princesses" and other toys imposed on little girls : as we discover in the second act, all the princesses look the same, or at least they wear the same outfit, whether they are members of the chorus, the two stepsisters, or Cinderella herself, the latter benefiting from a slightly less voluminous dress and a slightly less flashy shade. The spectator is in for a surprise : Cinderella is ridiculous, not only because she has succumbed to formatting, but because she lacks some of the codes. The whole beginning of the ball act includes the familiar gags of the intruder-who-does-everything-against-time, the heroine never knowing when to wave her fan, when to raise her arms, etc.
Her meeting with the Prince, another misfit, makes her realise this : tortured by her glass slippers, encumbered by her crinoline, embarrassed by her inevitably blond wig, Cinderella immediately renounces all these ornaments to converse in her underwear with the young man, who generously lends her his shirt so that she doesn't get cold, and his red sneakers that hurt her feet so much less… The message is clear : princessing is no way to live.
Farewell, then, to the idealisation of the heroine. Farewell also to the fairy tale dimension of the libretto, when the "Fairy Oak" where Cinderella chooses as a place to die becomes in fact the basement of the factory, where she and the prince look for each other among filthy tanks. Farewell also to caricature, however delicious it may have been : even Madame de la Haltière is no longer a monster of pride and wickedness. It is true that she wears the pants (or culottes, rather), but the domineering stepmother simply has a few laughable flaws, and Daniela Barcellona delivers a very tasteful composition in this character, a hundred leagues away from interpreters who have been seen to tip unrestrainedly into vulgarity. The Italian mezzo expresses herself in polished French and sings with a healthy voice, without excess, without exaggerated breaks in register. Applauded in Lille in 2012 in the same role of the fairy, Kathleen Kim remains the sparkling coloratura she was ten years ago ; it is a pity that the staging does not lend more magic to her appearances, despite her luminous wand.
Massenet never intended a mezzo to play Cinderella, but a bad tradition has been created since Frederica Von Stade revived the role in the 1970s. If she lends the heroine a much more central voice than expected, at least Tara Erraught does so with a great deal of delicacy, which does not exclude a certain amount of energy ; the caddishness with which a few audience members comment on her looks is a sad reminder that nothing has really changed in the opera world since 2014 and that Glyndebourne Rosenkavalier where a British critic had an equally inappropriate reaction. In the same tessitura (which the composer didn't want either, but which is infinitely preferable to the tenor replacement that still sometimes prevails), Anna Stephany seems less at ease, as if she sometimes had to push her voice a bit to get past the orchestra. Charlotte Bonnet and Marion Lebègue are perfect as Noémie and Dorothée, as is Lionel Lhote, a very elegant Pandolfe, who is shown finding consolation in drink (as does the Prince, and even the Fairy…), where other productions had perhaps managed to make the relationship between the father and his daughter more moving.
Now that the Paris Opéra has acquired this production, which has several sets – not so common, nowadays – and a whole host of pink princess dresses, one can assume that it will repeat it from time to time and that various performers will help to remind Parisian audiences that Massenet is one of the great names in French opera.